Scarlett Pepper’s husband Henry is a skilled taxidermist, but despite his talents, he is struggling to get by in a dwindling marketplace. While surfing the net Scarlett comes across the work of another taxidermist, Felix De Souza. Unlike the Henry, a reclusive soul who mistrusts the Internet, Felix proudly showcases his creations to the public both online and in exhibitions.
Felix’s outgoing nature is not his only difference to Henry. While Henry values the integrity of each animal he recreates, Felix freely mixes and matches parts from different species to create his own fantastical beasts. Perhaps Henry would have more success, Scarlett suggests, if his methods were closer to those of the superstar Felix; and so Henry cheerfully adopts Felix’s techniques, even creating a swan-poodle hybrid as a Valentine’s gift for his wife. Scarlett, on the other hand, starts to regret encouraging Henry along this path – particularly after she finds a nineteenth-century pamphlet arguing that even dead animals have spirits. To her, the art at the centre of their lives has become spiritually corrupt…
The Taxidermist’s Lover
December 8, 2020
Polly Hall’s debut novel The Taxidermist’s Lover drops the reader directly into the strange world of the Pepper household, with Scarlett narrating the entire story to her husband in second person. In this close-knit environment where the outside world seldom intrudes, taxidermy is supreme. The re-creation of dead animals is more than a career or hobby to the Peppers: it is a spiritual matter, with taxidermy as the continuation of a tradition that goes back Egyptian mummies and Scarlett comparing the craft to Christ’s resurrection of Lazarus. The couple see the natural world as a place full of magic, which Henry is capable of bringing home with him:
Later that morning we found a hare with blood up its hind quarters, angled like a sleeping dancer across the road. I felt my heart sink. You killed the engine of the truck and we say in silence looking through the windscreen. Distinctively larger than a rabbit, these magnificent creatures were a rare sight. To see a hare run wild was to witness a miracle; they flew on land like a witch riding low on her broomstick. The pagan folk used to say they were shape-shifters, the embodiment of magic, their elusiveness giving rise to their mystery.
Taxidermy even haunts the couple’s sex life, Henry’s crafting of dead animals is mirrored in his usage of Scarlett’s body. In one scene, Scarlett dreams of a “crabbit” – a crow-rabbit hybrid made by her husband – coming to life, and then wakes to find that Henry is violating her as she sleeps. Another passage has Scarlett imagine herself and Henry rearing an animal for sacrifice, drinking its blood and dancing naked under the moonlight – sex, religion and the life and death of animals blurring into one. The couple are unable to have children, with Scarlett’s baby miscarrying during the course of the novel, and so giving life to dead creatues comes to substitute childbirth as well.
With the Peppers’ relationship dominated by taxidermy, the novel introduces the curious concept of taxidermic adultery. One of the couple’s few contacts outside the home is Penny, who sparks Scarlett’s ire by hiring Henry to handle her dead poodle: “I felt a pang of jealousy although I didn’t know why. She was old enough to be my grandmother. It was the face that you were creating something with her, I think, and with me.” Scarlett likewise becomes attracted to Henry’s charismatic rival Felix, leading to a tense moment when Henry accuses her of seeing Felix behind her back – the telltale sign being not the conventional hair on a coat, but a scrap of giraffe-patterned fur.
It should not take long for the reader to realise that Henry is an abusive husband, one who prefers Scarlett to show as little agency as possible, to be as passive and as pliable as the animals he sculpts. The story of how Scarlett came to love Henry is told between the lines of the novel, as we are made to piece together our heroine’s psychological portrait.
For one, we learn that young Scarlett shared Henry’s interests long before she even met him. Her childhood was littered with the bodies of animals, from the traumatic incident in which he father brutally killed a (probably harmless) dog that jumped on her back, to the little girl’s own disastrous attempts at taxidermy when she found a dead badger. Henry did not invite her into his world – the two were already occupying it together.
Scarlett herself is partly an aesthetic creation, as her mother forced her to dress identically to her twin brother: “She used every opportunity to fuse us together, like those fancy-dress parades she insisted we join or the matching cardigans she knitted for us. I was used to being dressed up like a mannequin.” Scarlett’s brother is called Rhett; their parents’ decision to name the two siblings after the romantic couple from Gone with the Wind is sweet on the surface but has an underlying sickliness – not unlike a dead kitten twisted into an anthropomorphic pose, in fact. Hints of incestuous attraction abound, as when the siblings roleplay their namesakes:
[H]e launched into one of his Rhett Butler impressions. “Tell me, Scarlett, do you never shrink from loving men you do not love?” He fell to the floor in front of me and held his arms up pleading. “Would you be more convinced if I fell to my knees?” We used to do this as kids, play-act the parts of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara—the two tempestuous lovers—which is a bit odd for a brother and sister, now I think of it.
Henry, meanwhile, shares a birthday with the twins, suggesting that he is on some level a surrogate Rhett; indeed, one scene has Scarlett accidentally refer to him by Rhett’s name during sex. Whether the subject is a dead animal or a living person, most of the novel’s characters share a preoccupation with re-shaping and re-creating – indeed, almost every passion on show in the story is driven by this urge.
The taxidermy that did so much to pull the couple together also comes to drive them apart. The novel’s main source of conflict comes not from Henry’s abusive tendencies, but from Scarlett stumbling upon the eccentric Victorian pamphlet claiming that taxidermic hybrids disrupt animals’ afterlives. This notion reinforces her unease at seeing such artificial chimaera:
Now, high above the main auditorium of the exhibition space was a redeemed crocodile given pride of place, sporting the ominous switchblade wings of an albatross. It looked as if it could glide away at any moment if the metal wires that held it in place were to snap. It had a mission, a buoyancy about its pose, capable of sinking its teeth into the spectators below and rolling them to the depths or launching itself up into the air and out the glass roof – a perfect killing machine manufactured by sewing together bird and reptile. With more sufficient legs than God intended, gone were the prehistoric flaps that caused it to waddle ungainly on land. Attached to its hips were the long legs of a large rattite, possibly of an emu or ostrich; the clawed tows looked muscular and lean compared to the hard, scaled exterior of the croc’s body. Those huge striding legs primed with power, its wings strong and proud, and solid unbreachable body, witnessed individually, were impressive parts from a butchered whole.
As I observed it up there, in suspended animation, I witnessed a cool, slow tear squeeze from its eye and roll slowly down its preserved cheek.
The Peppers’ twisted romantic drama plays out against a backdrop as striking as the Confederate Georgia of Gone with the Wind or the Yorkshire moors of Wuthering Heights. Narrating the story, Scarlett outlines the folklore of Somerset – from a legend that Jesus visited Glastonbury with Joseph of Arimathea, to the annual practice of wassailing the apple trees – and depicts a natural landscape alive with wonders and mystery (“Frustrated vengeful rumblings came out of the peat bog like Grendel’s mother resurfacing”). The setting also has an ominous aspect, with the river-crossed land being prone to floods during heavy rain – something that comes to further isolate the Peppers from the wider world.
It will not be hard to guess how the story of Scarlett and Henry will conclude: as is often the case with tragedies, the flaws that lead to the final calamity are apparent early on. The Taxidermist’s Lover plays with the inevitability of its plot, with the chapters alternating between a chronological account of the year in which the story takes place, and fragmented scenes from the Christmas at which it climaxes.
Ultimately, the novel engages the reader not through plot twists or narrative complexity, but through psychological depth, with protagonist Scarlett turning out to be both fascinatingly bizarre and wrenchingly sympathetic. The reader is placed not only into her head but into her own strange world: just as her husband transforms animal corpses into aesthetic objects, Scarlett shapes her surrounding landscape into a milieu of miracles, where death is merely an opportunity for rebirth. The underlying implication, the story beneath the story, is that the trauma of her personal history let to her creating this strange but wondrous new world.
There are horror novels that rely on gore and brutality to illicit physical revulsion from the reader, and others that use mounting tension and twist upon twist to provoke gasps of shock. With her debut novel, Polly Hall has chosen an approach where it is much harder to take shortcuts: she has placed her protagonist’s mental state front and centre, showing us not simply the things that happen to Scarlett but the ways in which Scarlett is shaped by those events. The Taxidermist’s Lover is a story of horror, pathos, and macabre beauty.